Repost: The Pitchfork Collective

I wrote this post a year and a half ago, when I first encountered Pitchfork’s inspiring brand of anarchy as a visitor to Denver. Today is Pitchfork’s last day as a functioning collective – the murals have all been painted white, the rooms lay bare and eerily clean. I’m reposting this essay as a tribute to the incredible impact that Pitchfork has had on Denver’s now-thriving urban homesteading community. It will be missed.

Over the last year or so, I’ve slowly begun to come to terms with the fact that everything that mattered in the first two decades of my life – all my achievements and disappointments, my aspirations and concerns – occurred under conditions that are fast becoming obsolete. The economic meltdown that’s currently underway only serves to underscore the fact that the growth-centric society in which I grew up is poorly suited to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate and declining supply of energy.

Fortunately, I’ve never been one to shy away from change. Instead, I’ve spent the better part of the past year trying to figure out what it might mean to live in a way that works with, rather than against, natural systems. Do l I have to renounce the urban lifestyle to live sustainably? Will it make me happier, or more stressed out?

For now, these questions are largely hypothetical: as long as I’m at school in New York, sustainable living remains little more than an abstraction. Sure, I can refuse plastic bags, buy local food, and use compact fluorescent bulbs in my apartment, but in the end these are only gestures at leaving a lighter footprint, greening the edges of a way of life that is fundamentally against nature. But with graduation fast advancing – and the prospects of finding a secure career seeming less attractive by the week – I decided to use the generous break between my final two semesters to seek out a Forest Green way of life in my hometown of Denver.

Which is how I found myself living in the Pitchfork Collective, a cooperative living space founded about a year ago in central Denver. The three-story house, in the historic Five Points neighborhood, is home to an ever-shifting cast of characters, all between the ages of 17 and 27. During the course of my stay, I met couch-surfing hipster vagabonds, transgender wiccans, crust-punk anarchists, and many other folks too unique to slap a label on. What united them all was a respect for diversity, defiant individualism, and a belief in sustainable community.

Like any group of activist youth, the Pitchfork Collective wasn’t without its downsides: the industrial-sized sink was rarely without a pile of dirty dishes, and during the course of my stay, more than a few non-residents took advantage of the house’s open-door policy by overstaying their welcome. Still, I continually found myself surprised by the amazing things going on around the house – at any given time, collective members might be busy making crafts to sell on Etsy, planning for the springtime permaculture garden, teaching a class on positive menstruation, or cooking burritos to hand out to migrant workers. Despite the griminess, the constant flux of residents, and the youthful naiveté, I had to admit that Pitchfork was thriving. And it’s not alone: at least five or six similar houses have formed just past the frontiers of central Denver’s gentrification, all of them connected in a tight-knit community of young radicals.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Pitchfork was its role as host of Denver’s Food Not Bombs, a program that cooks and serves recently expired food to needy communities across the country. Every Saturday morning, volunteers made the rounds at several local grocery stores that have agreed to donate unwanted food, delivering dozens of boxes of produce, baked goods and leftover bulk goods to Pitchfork’s front lawn. An ever-shifting crew of residents and friends assembled to sort, prepare, and cook the food, working with whatever was in abundance that week. Once the dishes were ready, they were loaded into an old biodiesel pickup and driven to a nearby park, where a crowd of eager customers awaited.

The long train ride back to New York gave me some time to assess my stay at Pitchfork. Is it sustainable? Probably not – even Food Not Bombs is based on a surplus of produce grown far, far away. It’s also not for everybody; with such a diverse set of roommates, collective living can strain the most open of minds. Still, I don’t think Pitchfork really needs to be a universal template to be successful. After all, the whole point of the regeneration is to move away from universal templates in favor of new ways of living based on local climate and culture. Under these criteria, then, I’d say the Pitchfork Collective is a damn good first attempt at urban sustainability. In a society filled with cookie-cutter neighborhoods and lives that lack meaning, Pitchfork proves that diversity can succeed, that you don’t need stuff to be satisfied, that community is key – and that doing it yourself can be a whole lot more fun than letting others to do it for you.

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2 thoughts on “Repost: The Pitchfork Collective

  1. A Long Time 5 Points Resident says:

    I read this article with interest. As a long time resident of Five Points I had noticed the impact made by the Pitchfork Collective. Consistently they filled 2-3 city dumpsters a week with assorted trash and rotten food. Neighbors who had never been the victims of burglary suddenly witnessed a surge of theft. Their unkept yard contributed to the spread of noxious and invasive weeds throughout the neigborhood. The eco-themed graffiti they left behind was amateurish and poorly executed and needed to be constantly cleaned up. Upon moving out, they left behind enough refuse to fill the 5 city dumpsters near the house twice (that’s 10 dumpsters). And finally, this weekend we rescued a near-starved kitten also left behind. I suppose the Pitchfork Collective was helping someone, but this community is far better off without the summer slummers who left it far worse than they found it. Ah, the tragedy of youth.

  2. stephen says:

    This post is a point-by-point response to A Long Time 5-Points Resident. I am approaching this post with as much honesty and candor as I can.

    I was one of the co-founders of the Pitchfork Collective, where I lived over the course of the two and a half years that it existed. We started the Pitchfork Collective with the explicit vision of not only creating a vibrant, alternative community, but also to integrate into the surrounding communities with nothing but the best of intentions: altruism, sustainability, solidarity, etc. While we succeeded at times (perhaps not always) in creating our own alternative, vibrant community in all of its intermittent chaos, moments of beauty and weekly community service, we did not succeed, in my humble opinion, in reaching out to the surrounding community with all of our altruistic goals. In this respect, A Long Time 5-Points Resident’s (from here on, Resident) words are understandable. With this said, however, much of Resident’s words deserve explanation, apology and also refutation on various points.

    Point 1: That the Pitchfork Collective consistently filled 2-3 city dumpsters on a weekly basis.

    I can’t really argue against this claim except on the claim of frequency. It happened often I agree, and an apology is due for this, but not every single week. As a community house, there was a constant flow of people in and out, plus the current residents of around 10 people. In addition to this, every Saturday we operated Food Not Bombs, a community service project that receives donated food, food that would otherwise go to waste, cooks and processes this food and serves it to mostly homeless people at Sunken Gardens Park. In addition to this, we also fliered the neighborhood often, encouraging neighbors to come by and pick up food for themselves. And some neighbors did, every Saturday at 2:00pm.

    Point 2: that neighbors who had never been the victims of burglary and crime experienced an increase upon our moving into the neighborhood.

    I have no possible way of proving or disproving this claim, but I absolutely, without a doubt, deny what this point insinuates. Of all the people who we accepted as roommates and houseguests at the Pitchfork Collective, none of them would ever engage in this sort of behavior. To demonstrate this fact, over the 2.5 years that we lived at the Pitchfork, we never locked our doors, no one had a key including myself, and we never had any problems with break-ins, burglaries, theft or any other related crime. And so while I can’t prove or disprove this claim, I do strongly question its validity. I do wonder, though, that if Resident believed this to be true, why didn’t they or other residents contact us and engage us in dialogue? This is a serious concern.

    Point 3: that we contributed to the spread of noxious weeds because of the unkempt nature of our yard.

    When we first moved in, we were diligent in removing noxious weeds like goat-heads and also Trees of Heaven (often referred to as Sumacs or Atlantis trees) that grow like weeds throughout the metro-area. And while there were times when we slacked on keeping the up the outer perimeter yard, we also planted two apple trees, three grape vines, and kept up a beautiful, thriving garden whose produce often went to any neighbor who asked. Our outer yard wasn’t often that pretty, but never did we receive a fine from the City of Denver.

    Point 4: That we were responsible for amatuerish eco-graffiti.

    I don’t even know what ‘amatuerish eco-graffiti’ is…?

    Point 5: Upon moving out we filled a total of 10 dumpsters.

    Negotiations over trash removal with the landlord were for naught. With this said, it is not the landlord’s responsibility for trash removal, it is ours and we definitely failed here. We apologize to all of the residents of 5-Points for this.

    Point 6: that we left behind a kitten that was starved to near-death.

    This is absolutely groundless. I mean, really, a starving kitten? We had one cat that lived with us at the Pitchfork, Umbrella. Umbrella is sitting across from me at the table as I write this message. A good portion of us are vegans which means we hold the rights of animals in high regard. If there was a starving kitten at the Pitchfork it was either a stray or runaway from another house. Seriously… this is nearing slander.

    Point 6: We left the house worse than when we moved in.

    This is not true. When we moved into the Pitchfork, the previous inhabitants not only left all of their personal belongings and trash around the house and yard, but they also had received numerous fines from the city, something that we never did receive. Upon moving out, we cut all of the grass on the outer perimeter, we re-painted the walls inside, made some patches and did our best to leave the property as best we could. There were probably a few things that we overlooked, probably some trash, but there is no question in my mind, as demonstrated by empirical facts, that we left the house better than when we moved in. This refutation is also supported by the fact that we kept and maintained a great relationship with our landlord. Anything that may have happened to the house since August 1st is not our responsibility.

    In conclusion: In my opinion, other Pitchforkers might disagree, we did fail to reach out to the community of 5-Points. There existed a demonstrable gap in what our vision was and what actually occurred. We failed to make a consistent and noticeable effort to meet and develop relationships with our neighbors. And for this I do apologize. I do think that if we succeeded in reaching out, in fulfilling our vision, a lot of these complaints would not exist because of our strong, yet often latent, commitment to community. This last point does beg the question, though, as to why Resident didn’t come to us with these concerns? And here I am not trying to shift blame: we were a rather visually daunting group, often loud and noisy, and we didn’t often make an effort to reach out to our neighbors– but still, this is the first time that we have heard of such adamant complaints before. It did break our hearts to hear this.

    If I did learn one thing from the Pitchfork experience, it is that community is absolutely essential. It should not be taken as lightly as we often times took it. Again, I do apologize for our failings, and I wish that our community service could have been more expansive. Yet at the same time, a lot of Resident’s complaints are ungrounded, at points they near slander and ridicule (i.e. “summer-slummers”…wtf?), and it does make me question the source of these complaints, as do all complaints regardless of where they come from, that are of this vitriolic nature. I do wish, however, that more conversation will come of this posting.
    Peace,
    stephen

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